The Most Memorable Albums of 1999 (Part 2)

PopMatters is 20 and to celebrate we are looking back at the popular music that defined the year of our birth. Part two covers the most memorable albums from March through June, highlighted by monster hits from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Moby, and Travis.

The Olivia Tremor Control – Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One [Flydaddy]


Released 23 March 1999

“Things come rushing in / Things come rushing out / When you’re in a dream / If you’re in a dream.” — “A Sleepy Company”

Sometimes I think Black Foliage is just that: a sprawling trip into the hazy, aural subconscious. Its seamless flow calls to mind a surreal dream state, one that brims feverishly with more melody and harmony and psychedelia — sheer, unbridled sound, really — than most bands manage in a career. Tape loops rushing in. Acid-laced indie-pop rushing out.

Other times, it’s a sort of lo-fi symphony, an absolute tapestry of four-track static and multilayered loops, vibraphones and singing saws — hell, even a thematic refrain — that coalesce, somehow, into bright, triumphant pop. First you hear the melodic sensibilities and home-recording ethics of Guided by Voices or early Pavement. Then you notice the rampant Beach Boys fetish — think Smiley Smile, not Pet Sounds. Then, finally, the Zappa-style sound collages, culminating with “The Bark and Below It”.

The point, as PopMatters editor Sarah Zupko put it in a 1999 review, is that “you could listen to this record 50 times and never hear it exactly the same way twice”. If there is an underlying thesis — one that Black Foliage embedded deep into my own musical consciousness — it is simply the notion that sugar-coated pop and avant-garde sound exploration need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, nothing on this record is more exciting than their paradoxical marriage. Just listen to “A Place We Have Been To”, a breezy power-pop number that could surely be the Apples in Stereo if not for the carnival kaleidoscope of glitchy tape manipulation floating on top.

And that pairing, I think, is what makes Black Foliage the purest and most satisfying evocation of the Elephant 6 aesthetic to date. Of Montreal has always been too shiny, too glammy at heart; Neutral Milk Hotel too long-winded and obtuse for the job. And given its enthusiastic critical reception (even from Pitchfork’s Mark Richard-San, who smartly suggested a fresh box of Q-tips “for your ears to have a chance at capturing the 32,486,978 distinct sounds”), I wonder why this record has floated in underappreciated obscurity while In the Aeroplane Over the Sea grows in cult stature each year.

Truly, after a decade of Pro-Tools and digi-compression, Black Foliage‘s delirious sonic jungle only sounds fresher, more intoxicating than ever. And lurking in its depth — from the fuzzy harmonic bliss of “California Demise (3)” to the bittersweet “Hilltop Procession (Momentum Gaining)” — there remains one final, defiant truth: namely, that pop music is most exciting when teetering frantically on the verge of collapse. – Zach Schonfeld

Travis – The Man Who [Independiente/Epic]


Released 24 March 1999

Growing by leaps and bounds over their debut, Good Feeling, Travis’s The Man Who would go on to be one of 1999’s best selling albums in the UK. Filled with beautiful melodies and more restraint than its more rock-based predecessor, the album has a quiet, melancholic sound that would go on to influence many of their fellow British bands, such as Keane, Starsailor, and Snow Patrol. Coldplay’s Chris Martin has even said, “Coldplay would not exist without Travis.”

Without a doubt, The Man Who is the album that started the trend that catapulted the above-mentioned bands into superstardom. Yet the kind of popularity achieved by these groups has in many ways eluded Travis. While The Man Who sold very well in Britain, their popularity throughout the rest of the world, most notably in the US, never reached the same heights of the bands that would follow in their footsteps.

The Man Who begins with “Writing to Reach You”, a gorgeous, lilting melody that serves as a perfect introduction to the tone of the album. Lyrically, the album tends toward songs of love, disaffection, and paranoia, mixed with references to other hit songs of the time, such as Oasis’ “Wonderwall” or Beck’s “Devil’s Haircut”. Travis’s gift for melody is fully on display in tracks such as “Driftwood” and “Turn” — with sometimes vague and nonsensical lyrics that are nonetheless evocative. Perhaps no song makes this point better than the haunting “Why Does It Always Rain on Me”, whose chorus (“Why does it always rain on me / Is it because I lied when I was seventeen”) speaks to the album’s repeated themes of distance and isolation.

Mostly made up of quiet, tender, some would say lightweight songs, The Man Who is an album that created a template for launching quite a few other bands, good and bad. While Travis have certainly had their share of imitators, ten years later The Man Who still sits head and shoulders above many of these imitations and offers a glimpse into the beginnings of a movement that would dominate album charts for years to come. – JM Suarez

Mogwai – Come on Die Young [Chemikal Underground/Matador]


Released 29 March 1999

Mogwai’s second album wasn’t just competing with Young Team, it was competing with “Like Herod” and “Mogwai Fear Satan”, two justly beloved classics that still retain the power to thrill today. Both possess more than enough dynamics and riffs to appeal to all sorts of guitar rock fans, so when the Scottish band followed them up with an album lacking anything quite as obviously ingratiating, the worm turned immediately. The result was the kind of classic sophomore slump backlash you don’t see in its purest form anymore, and to this day people talk about Come on Die Young as if it was a let down — too slow, too chilly, not fierce enough.

Fortunately, they’re wrong. It’s true that Come on Die Young is the most starkly abstracted of Mogwai’s album, but it might also be their best — as a start-to-finish album rather than a series of explosive moments, at least. While “Like Herod” was track two on its album, providing an immediate climax, CoDY saves its fireworks for one three-song, 30-minute burst at the end. The regimented “Christmas Steps” is the one the band still plays, but “Ex-Cowboy” in particular is a sadly neglected firestorm that ranks with the band’s best work (possibly because it spends much of its nine minutes in a tsunami of pure, riffless noise).

The first half of the album isn’t exactly a slouch either, but at the time the likes of “Kappa” and “Helps Both Ways” were dismissed as unexciting. With hindsight, CoDY looks better, though. As great an asset as Barry Burns has been, he (and his piano) have changed Mogwai’s sound significantly, and these songs are the last written and performed in Mogwai’s original mode. It was overlooked at the time, but the flipside of the contention that these songs don’t rage hard enough is that they feature the prettiest, most distinctive guitar playing Mogwai has performed to date.

And then there’s the sort-of title track “Cody”, still the best Mogwai song to feature conventional vocals. It’s a gorgeous song, above all else, and leads perfectly into what wound up being Mogwai’s most formally beautiful album. Later albums like Rock Action and Mr. Beast would feature Mogwai’s strength at distilling their ideas down into more compact packages, balancing the furious and composed sides of their sound more evenly, but the sprawling, cunningly sequenced Come on Die Young is still their grandest statement. – Ian Mathers

Low – Secret Name [Kranky]


Released 30 March 1999

Early in their career, Low’s music was involuntarily branded with the predictable catchphrase “slowcore”, which hung around like a serviceable but ultimately regrettable Spring Break ’99 butterfly back tattoo for years until a string of later releases finally lasered the phrase off. But focusing on the tempo of Low’s earlier records, including Secret Name, totally misses the multi-dimensionality of the band and its music. Contrary to the cop-out “slowcore” slogan, Low is and always was more than just the sum of its BPM.

The last year of the last millennium bore a strange selection of musical fruits. Amid the blockbuster Britneys of the day, independent music still thrived, with 1999 seeing the release of awesome records by Pavement and Sleater-Kinney, and labels like Merge and Kranky putting out seminal records like East River Pipe’s Gasoline Age and Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada.

Low’s 1999 effort stands with the best of its year and remains an outstanding step in the band’s development. Songs like “Missouri” and “Starfire” epitomize the kind of careful, spare melodies and deliberate instrumentation that would continue to be among Low’s musical hallmarks throughout their career. Listening to Secret Name in 2009, knowing what Low would go on to do with the more rambunctious and fully executed Great Destroyer, as well as the lush, angry, and experimental Drums and Guns, it’s clear that this earlier album still serves as a reflection of Low’s best elements.

Those include their oft-overlooked sense of humor, strong songwriting that draws from a deep and diverse well of musical influences (from Bauhaus to OutKast), and above all, a work-horse aesthetic that has always driven them toward intentionally disciplined, structured, and restrained songs. Secret Name marks a notch along the ascendancy of a band that I doubt has even reached its apex yet, and a decade after its release, the album remains as lovely, focused, and worthwhile as ever. – Gabrielle Goldstein

Trans Am – Futureworld [Thrill Jockey]


Released 1 April 1999

The world after 1999 was a fantasia for science fiction writers and readers in the century that preceded it. These visions of yesterday’s tomorrows, and the correlations and contrasts with our present, are especially fascinating now because they represent worlds that might have been, had we not been led down the paths, good or bad, that we were eventually taken.

Futureworld, post-rock minimalist group Trans Am’s shining moment, is not necessarily the retro-futurist tract its Tron-like album cover, vocoded vocals, and dystopian motorik beats make it out to be. Instead, like that old sci-fi: it’s an alternate reality, an alternative history. Futureworld is a sparser, less densely populated world. Around half of the tracks on the album are chase anthems (“Television Eyes”, “Futureworld”) — paranoid and taut like a race against the clock — and the other half can reach moments of great power and joy (particularly the epic “Sad and Young”). “Cocaine Computer” is probably the album’s lone connection to the present, as its funky disco groove, jangly guitars, and Romeo Void dank NYC sax recalls the dancefloor reign of the DFA and their many kindred spirits.

The album’s vocoder vocals are not used for kitschy effects, but rather to obscure the view. None of the lyrics are particularly comprehensible, save for the OMD-ish sheen of “Runners Standing Still” and the creepy ‘bot on “Am Rhein”, which insists “Come back to my house, baby” in between jagged dirges reminiscent of Helmet or Godflesh. Instead, the robo-voices feed back like a foreign language, a distant approximation of English or German, sent from another world, another 1999, one that makes our 2009 look like the Stone Age. – Timothy Gabriele

Fountains of Wayne – Utopia Parkway [Atlantic]


Released 6 April 1999

Fountains of Wayne’s self-titled debut album was critically adored and managed to create a small radio hit in “Radiation Vibe”. It was also a near-perfect collection of cheeky, slightly sarcastic power-pop. Their second album, Utopia Parkway, was just as critically acclaimed at the time, but a decade later, it doesn’t hold up quite as well.

Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood’s knack for writing a perfect pop song is on display here, to be sure, but Utopia Parkway also tends to get bogged down in ’70s nostalgia and jokey lyrics that aren’t actually funny. “Valley of Malls” and “Go Hippie” are examples of the latter. They’re both mildly catchy songs that sound smug and a little mean today, attacking suburban shoppers and hippies for no apparent reason. The former includes “Laser Show”, a fun song that nevertheless feels more dated than nostalgic. Meanwhile, “Prom Theme” and “Senator’s Daughter” are thin, wispy ballads that come off as boring instead of sentimental.

But Utopia Parkway is by no means a total miss. It contains a lot of strong material, too. The title track is ’70s nostalgia that actually works. “Red Dragon Tattoo” is catchy and a great singalong, and the line about the titular tattoo making the narrator “look a little more like that guy from KoRn” still makes me laugh today. “Hat and Feet” is silly, but it’s a really good song, and the chorus of “Amity Gardens” — “If you knew now / What you knew then / You wouldn’t wanna go to Amity Gardens again” — resonates because of its reversed timeframe.

The thing that really saves Utopia Parkway, though, is that it happens to contain the two best songs that Fountains of Wayne have ever written, “Denise” and “Troubled Times”. “Denise” is the band’s hardest-rocking song, with a crunchy guitar tone they’ve never tried again, and impeccable “Sha la la la la la la”‘s backing the chorus. “Troubled Times”, in contrast, is maybe the perfect ballad. Acoustic guitars back beautiful harmonies as Collingwood plaintively sings about a couple that persevered through a really rough patch in their relationship. It also highlights how good Fountains of Wayne can be lyrically when they’re on point: “Pining away every hour in your room / Rolling with emotion / Waiting ’til it’s opportune / Sitting there watching time fly past you / Why do tomorrow, what you can never do?” So even though it’s uneven, Utopia Parkway remains a solid effort 10 years down the road. – Chris Conaton

Nas – I Am… [Columbia]


Released 6 April 1999

Nas has been one of hip-hop’s most interesting characters. Bursting onto the scene with such gusto, straight into the heart of the genre, he has been able to practically float by ever since. Never has another rapper been constantly rooted for, album after album, without following through on the promise of that first collection of verses.

I Am…The Autobiography came directly after It Was Written, a popular affair that was still criticized for not being on the same level of what came before. Here, as is common throughout the genre, there was talk of a return to the real, leaving behind the popularity he had achieved, a notion he directly confronts in “Hate Me Now”, a song that was unfortunately overshadowed by its controversial video and violent aftermath. The DJ Premier head-nodder “Nas Is Like” is an attempt to ape the formula of yesterday, but never reaches the heights of those earlier tracks, despite first class production.

The rest of the album dribbles off from here, particularly the embarrassing sexual bravado of “Dr. Knockboot” and the unintentionally hilarious “Money Is My Bitch”, which rank among the lowest points of his career. It would be a couple of years before he would achieve some of the former glory with Stillmatic, returning to a deep focus on the lyrics instead of the macho posing he felt he needed to succeed in the industry. Nas is at a better place now than he was in 1999, finally striking a balance between the street and commercial sides of his persona that he can’t seem to shake, his fan-base still behind him eagerly awaiting his next move. – Craig Hubert

The Lilys – The 3-Way [Sire]


Released 20 April 1999

The knock on Lilys main man Kurt Heasley has always been that he’s a chameleon at best, a dilettante at worst, aping styles without, ya know, feeling them. Let the Trilateral Commission on Indie Rock Reputations stroke their (ironic) beards over that one, because all you need to know is this: 1999’s The 3-Way remains one of the smartest, shiniest, most exuberant slices of studio pop put to tape in the past 10 years, an unacknowledged template that peers in the Elephant 6 collective and Kevin Barnes’ Of Montreal got all the glory for exploring.

The Cliffs Notes version of The 3-Way might read, “Beach Boys contribute tracks to Nuggets,” shining a light on a world where multi-part string sections collide with Farfisas and fuzzed-out three-chord guitar stomps. But that description barely addresses the two dizzying, seven-plus minute psych-pop masterpieces “Socs Hip” and “Leo Ryan (Our Pharoah’s Slave)” that gleefully, slyly zig every 30 seconds or so, impossible to pin down and impossible not to be mesmerized by. Simpler pleasures, like the Kinks-y, Blur-y “The Spirits Merchant” and the faux-rumba “The Generator”, posit a universe where intelligent pop songs are the rule, not the exception.

Heasley’s sonic shapeshifting/wanderlust has gotten the better of him in recent years (see 2003’s sparer and darker Precollection), and he never returned to the ebullience and “gee whiz!” vibe of The 3-Way. Still, it’s there for the eager listener to discover and enjoy — who says you can’t show up to a party ten years late? – Stephen Haag

Tom Waits – Mule Variations [Anti-]


Released 16 April 1999

A somewhat fragmented collection of Waits’s unique assets, 1999’s Mule Variations picked up a Grammy and plenty of new interest in the by-now legendary performer, but sits oddly in his back catalogue, seeming something like a ‘best of’ compilation made up entirely of new songs. The ‘Variations’ in the title clearly suggests a Waits in self-pastiche mode, perhaps recognising that mainstream listeners were due to be reminded of his masterful presence and serving up individual, bite-sized portions of his oddities and tragedies, rather than wrapping them up in his usually varied but somehow unified whole.

Even if it’s not that coherent as an overall album, the songs themselves easily serve their purpose of presenting Waits’s style in an accessible but basically uncompromised manner. “Lowside of the Road” sees Waits deliver some devilish snarling like a sinister come-on, while “Cold Water” belts out some wonderfully blistering blues with unapologetic coarseness. “Black Market Baby” and “Eyeball Kid” seem to come from the same place as Waits’s often-disturbing stage work with Robert Wilson, and “Chocolate Jesus” has a wry charm and style that lifts it well above being a mere gimmick song (such as the album’s opener, “Big in Japan”, surely the least-interesting song he’s ever written).

But what does finally elevate Mule Variations into something unique is hearing one of Waits’s greatest — and frequently overlooked — attributes burst forth more confidently than ever before. Whether it’s for hustlers and whores, carnies and addicts, dead-beats and palookas, lost souls and beaten-down dreamers, Waits’s enduring compassion is fully on display here — indelible, sincere, and blisteringly powerful.

As Mule Variations comes to a close, the last few ballads finally form some kind of unified flow. “Picture in a Frame” and its simple lyrics are too honest to be trite, verbalising the plain joy that comes with a seemingly-tangible moment of love and warmth. “Take It with me”, similarly, has no time for pretence (“Always for you / And forever yours”), embracing the immediate simplicity that inspires the most spiritual of thoughts.

These delicate and tender moments are finally capped by the majestic and stomping “Come on Up to the House”, where Waits seems to become an elder sage, mere steps away from the all-compassionate, all-forgiving God he wrote of in “Down There by the Train” for Johnny Cash, and offering refuge and comfort for all those who would seek it. With the perspective of age (“Come down off the cross / We can use the wood”) and the experience of a life well-lived (“Does life seem nasty, brutish and short?”) Waits’s call to “Come on up to the house” never seems judgemental or demanding, but suggests a call to a higher plane of personal wisdom, resilience, and, of course, compassion.- Kit MacFarlane

Ben Folds Five – The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner [550 Music]


Released 27 April 1999

When Ben Folds Five exploded, they were a college band. Despite breakout hit “Brick”‘s somber tale of abortion and the shockingly detached nature of its narrator, Folds had a reputation as the best kind of pseudoadolescent: the kind who refused to grow up, and the kind who was, at least on the outside, wildly successful and unflinchingly happy despite — or, because of — his state of arrested development. He could sing about adorable, quirky, perfect pixies, bitch about his uncles and ex-girlfriends, and write back-page-of-the-journal love songs that didn’t sound like love songs. What he was doing wasn’t deep, it just felt like the place you wanted to be in ten years.

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner came along and ruined all that.

The first hint that Folds had changed direction was the sound of the album: it wasn’t quite Ben Folds Floyd, but it may as well have been for its departure from the simple, direct piano-bass-vocals sound of previous albums. John Mark Painter on the flugelhorn alone would have been difficult enough, but the electronics of album opener “Narcolepsy”, the violins of “Magic”, the treated, barroom-style piano of “Mess”… well, once those first four tracks were out of the way, we were so exhausted from the departure that we just didn’t have patience for the rest of it.

When we finally forced ourselves to listen, though, hearing what we did made things even more difficult. This was not happy-go-lucky Ben — the Ben who might be sad but at least he’s still energetic about it; the Ben who’d just as soon toss out an f-bomb as extend a metaphor for the length of a song. This was sad-sack Ben, a side we hadn’t met yet. This was an album about divorce. “Hospital Song” is five lines of sadness that end in death. Even the upbeat songs are laced with an almost off-putting, cutting, humorless sarcasm. If not for the hopeful final pair of tracks, the entire thing would be utterly bleak and hopeless. Our hero, it seemed, was giving up.

What we didn’t realize at that point was that Reinhold Messner was a transitional album, the one where Folds started to allow us to see all the sides of his personality and not just the fun, concert-ready ones. Perhaps it’s the context of his solo work that allows us now to see Reinhold Messner for what it really is: emotionally naked, beautifully melodic, and wonderfully varied. Or, perhaps, those of us who were in college during the beginnings of Ben Folds Five have grown up a bit ourselves, and are only now ready to fully appreciate it. – Mike Schiller

Fantômas – Fantômas [Ipecac]


Released 27 April 1999

Mike Patton has straddled so many genres and appeared with so many different artists (John Zorn, Dan the Automator, and Kaada, just to name three), it’s almost impossible to think back to that time, a little over a decade ago, when Faith No More fans agonized over whether that band would reunite (they would not). At the same time, the smaller, but equally — if not more — fanatical contingent of Mr. Bungle fans wondered if, and how, that band could possibly follow up their uncategorizable shot heard round the underground, Disco Volante. Their prayers would be answered with California, which then sent fans into another prolonged wait-and-see as to whether Mr. Bungle would record again (they would not).

Patton has made so much music that it really is incredible — and more than a little amusing — to remember that he was a straightforward rock deity, relatively speaking, circa 1998. That is to say, he was famous (relatively speaking) for fronting Faith No More, even though that band got (and still gets) more attention for its decidedly mediocre breakthrough The Real Thing (1989) than Angel Dust (1993), which is easily one of the best and most influential albums of that decade. No matter what Patton proclaimed, most folks assumed that Mr. Bungle was a lark, a side project to scratch the creative itches his more mainstream material could not approach.

And so, regardless of what anyone expected, or hoped for, it was less than likely that anyone could have anticipated what the eccentric frontman was cooking up in his laboratory. As soon became evident, Patton was headed in a very different direction indeed, inspiring him to recruit a supergroup of sorts to help him realize his vision. Calling on Trevor Dunn (good friend and bassist from Mr. Bungle), Buzz Osborne (guitarist and mastermind of the Melvins), and Dave Lombardi (the widely worshipped drummer from Slayer), Patton assembled what appeared, on paper, to be a metal lover’s wet dream.

Amazingly, the collective turned out to surpass even the wildest hype, gelling to constitute a unified whole greater than the sum of its impressive parts. Of course, musicians of this magnitude can’t help but be brilliant, but the lion’s share of the credit must go to Patton, as this was his baby for every step of the way. The band played and perfected the material Patton provided, and the resulting album hit the streets in April 1999, becoming the inaugural release for Ipecac, Patton’s new label.

Fantômas, named after the very popular, if controversial, early 20th century French crime novel character, is effectively the band that ensured Patton was finished with Faith No More (soon, he would also be finished with Mr. Bungle). It’s challenging to describe what their eponymous debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It is decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It is also refreshingly out there, which one would expect from Patton. But this does not begin to address how truly original the album is, incorporating oddness of a whole other magnitude.

Patton does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument — there is not a single intelligible word uttered through the duration of the recording. Indeed, the work itself does not feature songs, but “pages”, the idea being a musical interpretation (or recreation) of a comic book: 30 sonic snippets that accompany the “plot” illustrated in the CD booklet. Frankly, the pictures (though very effective) are not necessary, as the emphasis here is on sounds and feelings, not linear narrative. This is not to imply that the proceedings are unintelligible; rather, the music unfolds with its own internal logic. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw, and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this is challenging material that obliges the audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own terms.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction — wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener — Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

Fantômas is not an album most people would put into the regular rotation. It’s intense, it’s involving, and it requires a full sitting to absorb — although having heard it so many times, I actually can queue up individual “pages” and enjoy them on their own terms: Pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 19, 21, 26 and 29 are endlessly interesting and satisfying, especially if they randomly pop up in the iPod shuffle — and it’s most likely not the music you want on when company is present. Ten years has not remotely diminished its quirky, edgy ambition, and it remains a very unique document, even in Patton’s ever-growing catalog.

It’s difficult to determine how influential this work was, because nobody else in the world could ever have conceived this, much less pulled it off. It was an inspiration for the assembled players, as they would collaborate many times in the ensuing years, with predictably engaging results. Whether or not Fantômas is the best work Patton has done is totally irrelevant, but it is perhaps the most important work he has ever done. For himself. – Sean Murphy

Old 97’s – Fight Songs [Elektra]


Released 27 April 1999

The Old 97’s remind me of a bumper sticker I saw recently in Oak Park, Illinois: “I Was a Vietnam Veteran Before It Was Popular.” The same idea fits because this was a band of rock and blues kids who were into country, which wasn’t very popular in the 1980s. And yet, by 1994, four guys — drummer Philip Peeples, guitarists Ken Bethea and Rhett Miller, and bassist Murry Hammond — had managed to put their perspectives on country music down in the form of the Old 97’s, becoming one of the most recognizable and influential alt-country bands.

Throughout the early ’90s, the Old 97’s put out a few country and western, Texas-twangy records and toured incessantly. However, by 1999 the band had started to evolve in more of a mainstream pop direction, which is readily apparent on Fight Songs. There are two Old 97’s on display here — a college bar band and a traditional, rootsy, country rock band.

The new sound is heard right away in the first track, “Jagged”, a pop-rock song with Americana sensibilities. The lead guitar grips you immediately, and I can’t help but wonder if the Drive-By Truckers ripped off the chord and song structure for their song, “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” off of 2003’s Decoration Day. Other pop songs that stood to alienate long-time fans include “Oppenheimer”, “What We Talk About”, and “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)”.

Although most people point to “Murder” as the best song on this record, I disagree. Those honors have to go with “Lonely Holiday”. This may be one of the saddest songs ever recorded in the last 15 years, and it’s a solid tearjerker along the lines of the Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work” and the Juliana Theory’s “You Always Say Goodnight, Goodnight”. When Midler whispers, “I’ve thought so much about suicide / Parts of me have already died”, you can feel his pain. What makes the whole experience so alarming for the listener is that the song is almost happy, in a country and western, upbeat kind of way — kind of like Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues”.

In some ways, that’s really a good description of this whole record — sad, country-inspired songs that have pop and rock edges. There’s no question that Fight Songs is an alt-country record due the prevalence of that sound and the themes in Miller’s lyrics. Tracks like “Busted Afternoon”, “Valentine”, and “Let the Idiot Speak” seem like the soundtrack to warm evenings of barbecue, lemonade, and Jim Beam.

In the end, 1999 will be known for the year that the Old 97’s partially reinvented themselves and released their first country-pop record. But, the Old 97’s, like the train for which they were named, would continue to push the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll and country music into the next century, and continue to be one of the best American bands. – Shyam Sriram

Backstreet Boys – Millennium [Jive]


Released 18 May 1999

The first album to officially sell over one million units in its first week (it wound up selling well over 10 million in its lifetime), Backstreet Boys’ Millennium kicked off the era of the mega-album, now a quaint memory in a time when most albums struggle to sell a million copies ever. A typical pop album of the era, all oily ballads and goofy post-new jack dance jams, it hasn’t aged well at all, except for one song: the immortal “I Want It That Way”.

You may not know what the hell the song is about, but damn if you don’t start singing “Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache / Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake” as soon as the chorus hits. It turned out to be the finest moment for not only the Backstreet Boys themselves, but also the Swedish writing and producing team who came up with the song. Although Millennium had other hits (like the immortalized-by-Napoleon-Dynamite dance jam “Larger Than Life” and the ballad “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely”), it’s “I Want It That Way” that remains indelible long after Kevin, Howie, AJ, Nick, and Brian have faded from the public conscious and people have forgotten the remainder of the album it came from. – Mike Heyliger

Blink-182 – Enema of the State [MCA]


Released 1 June 1999

Listening to Enema of the State for the first time in years, it was instantly recognizable why this album became such a hit. It’s the hooks. Prior to this album, Blink-182 had managed to put together a handful of catchy pop-punk songs (especially “Dammit”) that put the group on the mainstream music radar. But Enema of the State is a collection of irresistible guitar and vocal hooks that lodge in your brain and stay there for days.

The band was also known for its extremely juvenile sense of humor, which it toned down here, at least for the songs themselves. The album title and cover art — as well as the videos for “What’s My Age Again?”, which featured the band running naked through Los Angeles and San Diego, and “All the Small Things”, which gently parodied the boy-band videos of the time — all retained their trademark crude jokes. This combination of hooky and jokey made Blink a success, which was quickly imitated by a slew of progressively less-likable bands (Hello Sum 41, New Found Glory, and — ugh — A Simple Plan).

Producer Jerry Finn got the band to go for a crisp, ultra-clean sound on the album, but more importantly, he seemed to get singer-songwriters Tom Delonge and Mark Hoppus to focus on their songwriting for an entire record. Considering how sloppy and unprofessional the band was in concert (I had the misfortune to see them three times — the last time, during a co-headlining arena tour with Green Day, I actually left the show a few songs into Blink’s set), the quality of the songs on this album is kind of startling.

From the opening guitar riff of “Dumpweed” to the end of closer “Anthem”, this album only falters during a couple of lackluster songs near the end. And even those are at least decent. The lyrics on Enema of the State aren’t great — “Dumpweed”‘s refrain is “I need a girl that I can train”, while “The Party Song” repeats “Some girls try too hard / With the way that they dress / And those things on their chests” like it was clever, and “All the Small Things” is a really, really trite love song. But “What’s My Age Again?” knowingly addresses the band’s juvenile humor, and the level of detail in the attempted-suicide power ballad “Adam’s Song” makes it quite affecting.

And I would be remiss to finish this reminiscence off without mentioning drummer Travis Barker. Easily the most skilled player in the band, his creative flourishes subtly enhance the songs here without becoming overwhelming. It may mark the point where Blink-182 made themselves easy targets for ridicule, but Enema of the State deserved to be the hit it became. – Chris Conaton

Dido – No Angel [Cheeky/Arista]


Released 1 June 1999

Dido’s debut album, No Angel, first entered my radar thanks to a British friend who seemed unable to stop replaying the first two verses from the single “Thank You” — the same opening that Eminem later sampled in “Stan” from The Marshall Mathers LP. No Angel was released in the US before it hit the shelves in the UK, but even before it was available in Dido’s home country the success of the album was assured. With her softly floating vocals and vaguely Celtic-inspired electronic backing, Dido was something completely different in the late ’90s music scene. The landscapes she sings about are slightly unearthly and dreamlike, but her choruses are catchy, and thus pop fans latched on quickly to her tunes about lovers coming and going, as well as more mundane themes like missing the bus and having a bad day at work.

Initially, it seemed rather pretentious for the record industry to introduce yet another single-named pop star, but I can understand why Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong, as she was born, might want to re-imagine herself for a record career. The name Dido has roots in an ancient Phoenician word meaning ‘wanderer’ — and this fits perfectly with the singer’s themes of travel, self-discovery, disappointment, and love lost. With several radio-ready singles, and the ability to appeal to multiple ages, No Angel did well in major Anglophone markets and Dido became a household name. Dido’s music lends itself well to mixing and sampling, which in this age of digital mash-ups has ensured some degree of longevity. Just this week I stumbled across two YouTube mashups of Dido’s “Here with Me” track from No Angel mixed with Kanye West’s song “Say You Will”. Ten years on, No Angel is still getting play. – Lara Killian

Moby – Play [V2]


Released 1 June 1999

Moby’s hugely successful Play was famous in its time for being the first CD to have every one of its tracks licensed for television commercials, TV shows, and movies. If you’ve never heard the album, you might assume, accordingly, that it’s a poppy, ephemeral, lightweight piece of work, yet it’s anything but.

In fact, there’s a much better reason why Play is famous: Moby’s seamless interweaving of his own electronic music with old recordings of gospel, folk, and blues songs, many of them field recordings rescued from oblivion by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. The combination is stunningly successful. There’s a monumental quality to the music that makes it sound as if the melodies have always been with us — which, in a sense, they have.

Moby supposedly licensed Play‘s tracks out of frustration with radio’s unwillingness to play his songs, but he was able to do this so successfully and ubiquitously only because the quality of the album is so consistently high. Not only are there hardly any weak tracks on this album (a few rap samples aside), there are hardly any that aren’t memorable.

As such, it’s difficult to single out the best tracks, but “Natural Blues”, built around the song “Trouble So Hard” by the late folksinger Vera Hall, is a true beauty. “Porcelain” and “Run On” are also great — you may not recognize the titles, but you’ll instantly recognize the songs themselves, and if that’s because you first encountered them on television or in a movie, well, why exactly is that bad?

The question of whether Moby “sold out” is, like the issue of whether Play “stands up” after 10 years, beside the point. In its combination of the antique and the electronic, and in the exquisite care with which both halves of the equation were placed into a universal context, Play achieves timelessness. – Michael Antman

Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun [Fat Cat]


Released 1 June 1999

Now that Iceland’s second-most-famous musical exports have been uplifting indie-rock for a decade, it’s worth re-summoning the thick fog of mystery that attended the band as this astonishing album was first being discovered by listeners beyond the rocky volcanic shores of its birth. In a global culture made increasingly interconnected and credulous by the Internet, Ágætis Byrjun was an ephemeral whisper of myth and magic. “Have you heard of this band?” someone might say to a cherished friend. “They’re kind of like Radiohead, only they’re from Iceland. And they sound like elves or something.”

For all we knew, these stunning soundscapes of ethereal beauty could have been made by a mischievous collective of latter-day Lokis, or else by winsome gnomes and mountain sprites, pining for the fjords like ex-pats from the background of Peer Gynt. How were we to know? It was 1999, and Ricky Martin was a star; no one could deny that stranger things had happened in pop music. Three albums of similarly magnificent compositions have caused that fog to disintegrate, but the sublime recording that introduced Sigur Rós to the wider world retains its moving transcendence. The band may have later reached higher, but they haven’t since pierced us so deeply. This is music momentous in its patience, and patient in its momentousness. “A good beginning,” indeed. – Ross Langager

Orbital – The Middle of Nowhere [Rhino]


Released 8 June 1999

Orbital were large from the start. The genius behind the Hartnoll brothers’ tunes was just how massive everything was, seemingly designed to rock a wide-open and well-lit space. The grandness reached its climax with 1996’s In Sides, which saw the duo’s cinematic ambitions reach a peak with the half-hour single “The Box” (and accompanying short film), not to mention soundtracking The Saint and Event Horizon around the same time.

1999, then, was an odd time to be Orbital. The advent of more advanced computer programs was ushering in the era of the laptop performer, making Orbital’s racks of live gear look curiously archaic. Rather than scale things back or make concessions to the glitch, minimal, or jungle music that had taken over popularity at the time, however, Orbital took the pure road and delivered Middle of Nowhere, another sprawling maximal journey. Opener “Way Out” immediately produces the kitchen sink, with horns, strings, and ethereal female vocalizations rotating in a binaural salad — it’s worth noting here that Nowhere is an excellent headphones record.

Nowhere proudly betrays its creators’ gearslut tendencies, down to single “Style”, built largely out of the Stylophone novelty pocket synthesizer. Frequent collaborator Alison Goldfrapp (who in 1999 was busy enough with her debut solo album) stops by to offer some unintelligible (yet no less entrancing) singing on the two-part “Nothing Left”. For many artists on this list, 1999 was a “weird” year in which, perhaps owing to a case of the pre-millennium whatevers, things got looser than listeners could (or should) handle. That Orbital stayed their course while still managing to drop another excellent release only illustrates just how forward-thinking they were in the early ’90s. This album has aged quite well, still sounding exciting and fresh, and given Orbital’s recent regrouping, perhaps its time to get back to the middle of nowhere. – David Abravanel

Pavement – Terror Twilight [Matador]


Released 8 June 1999

A frequent, dogging criticism of Pavement involves the slack or lazy qualities some associate with the band. Yes, their live performances were frequently a bit sloppy, and singer and primary songwriter Stephen Malkmus has a delivery that supports such a criticism, though largely as a matter of style. It would be difficult to imagine his lyrics functioning well outside of the Pavement signatures: shabby appearance, meandering guitar strums, speak-singing, stunted rhythms, and unique cadences. It’s convenient to call the band members slackers, but to spend some time with the music is to realize that the alleged laziness is really an appropriate form for the loose, circuitousness content.

The big picture was always, in fact, quite active. Pavement released five memorable studio albums in the 1990s, and even as irony couldn’t beg for death quickly enough, Malkmus found new ways to make us wonder what he meant, how he meant it, and if all of the catchy but inscrutable non sequiturs would ever add up to something resembling a return on the sometimes obsessive investment of many listeners.

Also noteworthy was the critical elevation of Pavement as standard-bearers of specious genres (indie rock, college rock, etc.) that aren’t genres at all, but instead ways to describe the production/distribution models and markets for the music the band created. There were likely many reasons for the increasing dysfunction and dissolution of the band in 1999, but it’s reasonable to suggest that shouldering a generation’s habitually misunderstood spirit is not a desirable job. Kurt Cobain didn’t want it, either.

Although Terror Twilight isn’t a suicide note of an album, it is an exceptional farewell. Produced by Nigel Godrich, the album hangs together more solidly than earlier Pavement albums without ever sounding overly ambitious. The cohesion and purpose of Terror Twilight suggests a level of maturity that is somewhat deceiving. While the songs are more carefully crafted and the production is better than ever, the album is less of a full-band effort than any of Pavement’s previous releases.

For many, the first two Pavement albums, 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted and 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain found the band at their rough-around-the-edges best. After testing the limits of experimentation with 1995’s Wowee Zowee, Mitch Easter helped the band recalibrate with Brighten the Corners in 1997. But, according to various accounts, the smoothing of the Pavement sound occurred parallel to the disintegration of the band.

Perhaps it is the acknowledgment of the inevitable End that gives Terror Twilight its emotional weight. Single “Spit on a Stranger” concerns a kind of incongruous dependency: “Honey I’m a prize and you’re a catch and we’re a perfect match / Like two bitter strangers”. The song is romantic, but exposes the faults of such idealism, wary of its promises, even as they are being sung (“I’ll try the things you’ll never try / I’ll be the one that leaves you high”).

The anxious, tentative guitars of “Cream of Gold” reinforce its tale of a doomed affair as Malkmus declares, “I sensed the toxic aura from the second we touched”. The minute-long guitar solo that closes the song is an extension of the conflicted leave-taking theme that defines the album. The full poignancy arrives with ballad “Major Leagues”, which assesses the conflicts and dismissals of the album’s first half and stares down the uncertain future. “Speak, See, Remember” foretells the classic/progressive rock direction of Malkmus and the Jicks, invoking the “terror twilight” and decrying the insatiable creep of corporate greed as openly as “The Hexx” explores the emptiness of careerism.

Closer “Carrot Rope”, also a single, leaves no doubt that the jig is up. “Debating if it’s time to drop the bomb on you, my dear”, Malkmus sings in a final stab of wit. But every song on Terror Twilight has already dropped multiple hints that this is the band’s final act. Of course, this is all much easier to discern in retrospect, and there is always the temptation to read too much into the text. However, the inescapable atmosphere of twilight that permeates the album’s 44 minutes is not the accidental productivity of a bunch of slackers.

Although Pavement’s previous four albums are to varying degrees Rorschach tests for the perceptions of the listener, Terror Twilight movingly pulls back the curtain on the tensions and vulnerabilities of “indie rock” royalty. This brief but powerful moment of access is the best kind of swan song, because as much as fans might have wanted the band to stay together, Terror Twilight convinces the listener that a perfect sound cannot last forever. – Thomas Britt

Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Californication [Warner Bros.]


Released 8 June 1999

Of all the things that burned brightly at the testosterone-fuelled Woodstock 1999, none burned hotter than a reunited and rejuvenated Red Hot Chili Peppers. The funk-punksters, who famously donned light-bulb costumes for their set — except for bassist Flea, who, of course, wore nothing — closed out the festival with a blistering set, complete with bonfires and looting. It culminated in a spirited cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”, with recently returned guitar prodigy John Frusciante providing pyrotechnics that could have risen Hendrix from the dead.

Thanks in large part to Frusciante, the Chili Peppers were back on top in the summer of ’99, after losing most of the previous decade to drug abuse and bad personnel decisions (Dave Navarro, anyone?). But the band’s resurgence was also closely tied to the success of Californication, the band’s seventh studio album, which was released in June of that year and would go on to become their biggest commercial success to date. Not only did Californication bring Frusciante back into the fold, it also marked the first time these four Chili Peppers (singer Anthony Kiedis, drummer Chad Smith, Flea, and Frusciante) would reteam with uber-producer Rick Rubin since 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the band’s commercial breakthrough.

After the experimental psychedelia and metal of 1994’s One Hot Note — Navarro’s only album as a Chili Pepper — Californication saw a return to the band’s trademark punk-funk sound, but with a twist, as well as an expanded sonic palate. Sure, Flea’s bass is still in your face, and, yes, there are still the requisite overt odes to raw sexuality (“Get on Top”, “Purple Stain”), but there is much more room for melody on this album — most notably “Scar Tissue”, a monster No. 1 hit and eventual Grammy winner — and much more attention is paid to songcraft. Songs like the title track, “Californication”, with its jaded look at the dream factory that is the Golden State, and “Porcelain”, a touching ballad inspired by Kiedis’s encounter at a YMCA with a single mother trying to kick the bottle, point to a new maturity in the group’s songwriting, as well the great strides Kiedis had made as a vocalist.

Californication was not only a return to form for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was also the beginning of a new phase in the band’s career, which would see them become the platinum-album-selling, arena-touring machine we know them as 10 years later. It also brought them back from the brink of extinction, thanks in large part to the return of guitarist John Frusciante, who was able to reignite a band that was finally mature enough, and sober enough, to know what to do with that spark. – Mike Garrett

[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 ]

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This article was originally published on 22 June 2009.